If you had told me just three or four years ago that not only would I get to hear a new Ben Folds Five album — and a damn fine one to boot — but see them on tour, I would have beaten you savagely about the head, neck, and chest. OK, I would have aggressively rolled my eyes and fired off a withering Tweet when safely out of range.
And yet here I am in mid-2013, having already declared The Sound of the Life of the Mind as one of last year’s best albums and just days away from seeing the trio for the first time ever in concert. Joining me for the festivities at the PNC Bank Arts Center in New Jersey will be our own intrepid Dw. Dunphy, my partner in crime for the Platters That Matter podcast. We did one of those on a Ben Folds Five album, so listen to that for sure.
I can think of no better occasion, then, to apply my own capricious musical tastes to BFF’s catalog and declare which songs are the group’s ten best. Read along, and let’s be happy underground.
Philosophy (from Ben Folds Five)
I really hate the lazy music journalist trope of “So and so is clearly in line to inherit so and so’s title as whatever.” But man, if anyone seemed poised to assume Billy Joel’s abdicated throne as America’s greatest piano tunesmith, it was Ben Folds Five. “Philosophy” is the equal of late ’70s Joel, with the raucous abandon of mid ’70s Elton John thrown in for good measure.
Boxing (from Ben Folds Five)
But then there’s “Boxing,” which trades bombast for pathos and is a fantastic bookend for the band’s debut record. (Yes I know “Jackson Cannery” is actually the first song, not “Philosophy,” but work with me. This melancholy ballad cum waltz is written as a fictional monologue from Muhammad Ali to Howard Cosell on the former’s thoughts of retirement.
One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces (from Whatever and Ever Amen)
The transition from mildly acerbic Ben Folds to totally fucking bitter Ben Folds was a rather quick one, as the opening track from the Five’s sophomore record attests. Fortunately the music is just so damn upbeat and full of seeming joy that it hardly matters.
Steven’s Last Night in Town (from Whatever and Ever Amen)
This is one of the few BFF songs that doesn’t quite make the translation to a live setting. Something about the energy on the studio version just sizzles out of your headphones/speakers. The entire bridge section gets me every time, and for some reason reminds me to the theme from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Missing the War (from Whatever and Ever Amen)
Much has been made of Ben Folds’ rather checkered romantic past, but I’ll say this for the man — he knows how to channel pain into beautiful music. And this is about as beautiful as Ben Folds Five gets. This song is a great showcase for band’s the not-so-secret weapon: those gorgeous and slightly off-kilter vocal harmonies.
Kate (from Whatever and Ever Amen)
Ben Folds has written so many snide and sarcastic tunes, the times he doesn’t seem especially sunny. And so “Kate,” co-written with Darren Jessee and Anna Goodman (Folds’ first wife), is a blast of good cheer on a record that can be pretty dark at times. Sure the chorus is a bit simplistic, but I dare you to not sing along by the end.
Air (from Godzilla)
As if to atone for the blasphemous garbage that was Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me,” the soundtrack to 1998’s forgettable Godzilla movie somehow contained a prime BFF cut. The dense and rather downbeat “Air” can now be seen as clearly pointing the way toward the direction the band would take with their third album, but at the time I just thought it was a great song.
Don’t Change Your Plans (from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner)
Whenever there’s talk of a pop act becoming more “sophisticated” with their sound, that’s usually code for “pleasant, but boring.” But somehow, with the Reinhold Messner album, Ben Folds Five became even more engaging. Even as the rougher edges of the band’s approach were honed with the Bacharach-esque arrangements on “Don’t Change Your Plans.”
Magic (from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner)
Rarely has a song been more aptly named. Dw. Dunphy and I both waxed poetic about this great Darren Jessee song on our podcast, so once again I urge you to check it out. And in the words of James Brown, let’s give the drummer some!
Erase Me (from The Sound of the Life of the Mind)
I won’t lie and say I knew that the Five’s reunion album was going to be great. After all, those things are such hit or miss propositions. But I will say that the leadoff song from The Sound of the Life of the Mind, “Erase Me,” made me feel much more secure in the prospect. It pretty much sounds like the band picked up where they left off with Reinhold Messner. The thumping density of verses mixed with that brilliantly intricate, jazzy bridge sounded so sweet after such a long wait.